Chicago International Film Festival: Part II, by Aaron Pinkston
Domestic, dir. Adrian Sitaru, Romania
Another comedy from the ever-growing Romanian New Wave, Domestic balances really intelligent and daring filmmaking with a sharp wit. Though the national film movement is still more associated with gloomy dramas, the comedies I’ve seen from Romania (see my review from the European Film Festival of Dan Chisu’s Chasing Rainbows) have been exceptionally good, as well. Domestic takes place in an apartment complex, looking into the lives of three families and their domestic situations.
There really isn’t a unified plot or one central idea running through the film, keeping three basic storylines, one for each family. Because of the characters’ approximation with each other, sometimes their storylines intersect, though the film’s construction stays rather simple. One peculiar tie-in to each story is the presence of animals, either for food or pets. I’m not entirely sure what the significance of animals plays on Romanian culture or what the film is trying to do with them — all of the plotlines are directly influenced by these animals, but I didn’t catch any specific thematic correlations these animals had in each situation.
Sitaru stays out of the action, keeping the camera still and letting scenes run longer than usual for a comedy. Long takes like we see in Domestic are more prevalent in very serious films, which can use the stillness to build tension. Comedies usually benefit from quick cutting to emphasize jokes and move the action along. In Domestic, this shooting style lets a scene and its humor develop. It also allows the performances to get into a rhythm. Though the film doesn’t cut in to close-ups, the actors remain very expressive. Domestic is essentially a film staged by long conversations, and the long takes allows us to see the whole conversation, uninterrupted.
Most of these scenes take place in one space with a defined group of people — for example, a married couple in their kitchen or a few couples at the table during a dinner party. Near the middle of the film, a party scene which breaks this trend a bit. It is again presented in one shot, but the camera moves around, getting glimpses at different conversations. This particular scene shows that Sitaru is much more able than to just stick a camera in the corner of a room and let his actors do all the work — similarly, it also shows that his shooting style is a very specific choice in the scenes that remain static. Sitaru finds the flow of a scene spatially as well as through the dialogue and performances.
For the most part, the film’s humor is conversational and a little silly. You get the sense that the people in this film are just living their lives; besides a few moments, there really isn’t anything special about their circumstances. On occasion, though, the film can be quite audacious. One particular scene, early on in the film, has a mother bring home a live hen to cook for dinner. When the father refuses to kill the hen, citing his wimpy status, he bribes his 12-year-old daughter to do it. Though nothing is explicitly shown, the one-take runs with the bathroom door in the background — when she finally does the deed, the camera’s set-up shows just enough of the aftermath, finding the right balance between horrific and hilarious. At another point, the film kills off a major character offscreen, without notice, in between takes. We meet this character and then are told a few scenes later that the character has died. It’s a bold choice, not really a joke, but shockingly dark. These types of moments balance a conversational, almost nonchalant humor with bolder elements that keep the viewers of their toes, not knowing what to expect next.
As a side note, for those of us who don’t speak Romanian, the subtitling sometimes paints a less than full picture of certain scenes. Because the film is so full of conversation, many times with characters talking over each other or at the same time, it is impossible to subtitle everything that is said. It is quite obvious at times that you’re not getting all of what’s said, and that is quite disappointing when what is read is so sharp. It doesn’t ruin the experience in any way, but if you happen to speak Romanian, Domestic is even more worth watching.
Show times: Sunday October 20 at 8:30 pm, Monday October 21 at 6 pm
Hide Your Smiling Faces, dir. Daniel Patrick Carbone, USA
Daniel Patrick Carbone’s Hide Your Smiling Faces is more about mood than about plot. Taking place in an unnamed rural part of the country, two brothers dig into their surroundings, effectively running away from the emotionally distant community. The film shares a lot in common with the recent indie hit The Kings of Summer, except that it is about as opposite in tone as you could imagine. Where The Kings of Summer is an often hilarious look at young boys shunning society for nature, Hide Your Smiling Faces is gloomy, moody and cold. The film is an idyllic piece of filmmaking, examining youth and nature in equal parts.
Nature in the film is marked by death, a radical difference from most films with a similar plot. Though the atmosphere is mostly serene, this is a wild place, overgrown by trees and weeds. Characters come across dead animals on a number of occasions over the course of the film, this death helping to exemplify the overall tone. This may be a film about children, but there isn’t a hopeful, innocent vibe. That doesn’t mean there aren’t moments of childlike wonder, but that’s not the film’s main impression. The kids in the film feel and act like kids, they aren’t precocious or emotionally mature.
The film’s major plot development happens early on, when the elder brother of the pair stumbles across the body of a young boy at the foot of a bridge. This death affects the entire community, as one would expect, especially our main characters. The greatest strength of the film is showing these immature characters trying to grasp the meaning and consequences of death. Given the nature of the film, the characters stay reserved throughout, but you can see the questions swirling around their heads about why and how this could happen. The deceased boy’s father only appears in a few scenes of the film, but he is impossible to forget — he shows a brooding mix of anger and sadness that creates potentially dangerous consequences for the brothers. The resolution brings this man and the younger brother together in a moment that is both incredibly suspenseful and quietly tender. Though the final scene may not explicitly wrap up any narrative, it is a stunning moment.
Hide Your Smiling Faces absolutely nails the relationship of the two brothers in all aspects. Though the brothers are separated by a few years (not explicitly stated, but they seem to be about 16 and 12), their camaraderie feels genuine. They are actively dealing with this atmosphere together, without much guidance from their parents or other important adult figures. Younger brother Tommy looks up to Eric, literally following his actions over the course of the film, for better or worse. Eric isn’t necessarily a bad kid, but he is definitely in a bad environment and heading down the wrong path. He clearly deals with the sadness of the world through anger, making rash decisions without much of a trigger. Hide Your Smiling Faces shows the importance of older brothers for young boys. As the film shows, they are perhaps even more important for development than misunderstanding parents and a distant community.
Show times: Monday October 14 at 6:15 pm, Wednesday October 16 at 6:30 pm, Tuesday October 22 at 1:30 pm
Life Feels Good, dir. Maciej Pieprzyca, Poland
After reading the brief plot description of Life Feels Good, I admit I was pessimistic. The film studies the true life story of Mateusz, a young man born with cerebral palsy and deemed a vegetable by his doctors. When his family can no longer care for a growing boy, Mateusz is sent to a live in a center for the “intellectually handicapped.” After years at the center he finally comes across a doctor who has devised a system that will allow him to communicate, however rudimentarily. From this plot, it is easy to expect either a dreadfully sad film or one with the oppressive tone of a Hallmark Network feel good flick. Life Feels Good certainly comes around to the latter by the end with a few major dramatic moments, but for most of its runtime the film is a small and quiet look at this character’s odd perception of the world. In all, the film is dramatic with the right amount of levity, sweet but rarely too saccharine.
The film uses a voice-over narration throughout, given by Mateusz in the first-person, relating his feelings and perspective of the world. The technique is kept at a distance, not in the moment, but looking back. This keeps the film from being too wrought with emotion or coming off as corny. Overall, the narration gives the film a literary sense, like a memoir. More importantly, because the film is directly about a character struggling to understand the world, with multiple characters claiming that he simply lacks the intelligence to actually perceive what is going on around him, the narration serves to prove them wrong in a way. In fact, Mateusz is more perceptive than anyone would believe. It’s not exactly subtle, but if it is at all reflective of the awareness of those with cerebral palsy, it is quite positive.
The film’s first act (also, the best act) shows Mateusz as a boy living with his modest family. The narration is always from the removed future, but this section does have the most wonder and imagination which would come from a young boy figuring out the world. Even if other relationships contain bigger dramatic moments, Mateusz’s with his father is the most stirring in the film. His father seems like a regular Polish joe — it’s unknown what he does for a living, though Mateusz (through voice-over) suspects an astronomer or mechanic before settling on wizard. He’s surprisingly gentle for his rugged appearance and has a sweet connection with his son that overshadows the relationships with his other children. It’s a brief section, but a memorable one, free of the more cloying traps that come later.
Perhaps it is just the lack of a Hollywood star or recognizable face, but I wasn’t distracted for much of Dawid Ogrodnik’s performance as Mateusz. It may also have to do with his commitment to the part, though it must have been a brutal shoot for the young actor. It is fine work; most of the runtime I genuinely didn’t realize it was an actor without cerebral palsy. It isn’t exactly a showy performance either, pretty gritty and thankless until the last few scenes where the script takes over and is designed to generate tears and cheers.
Life Feels Good can’t fully escape sentimentality, but the majority of the film is able to steer clear enough to give it a pleasant quality. Not all films of this kind would be able to succeed with as much grace as Life Feels Good, and though it isn’t fully successful, there is something to be said about a film that builds up so much good will through a majority of its runtime. If you ascribe to the theory that a film is about its ending, Life Feels Good may ultimately disappoint, but the first 90 minutes are certainly worth the time.
Show times: Tuesday October 15 at 5:30 pm, Sunday October 20 at 11:45 am
Sex, Drugs & Taxation, dir. Christoffer Boe, Denmark
A title like Sex, Drugs & Taxation creates a certain expectation. Not only can we expect debauchery of all kinds, there must also be a certain sarcastic wit and perhaps a bit of business dealings. Though my overall thoughts on Christoffer Boe’s Danish biopic are lukewarm, I must say that it hits the expectations of its title in stride. The (mostly) true story of millionaire playboy Simon Spies and his economically-driven attorney Mogens Gilstrup delivers many awkward sexual moments only equalled by the plots of evading income tax. In total, it’s a sometimes fresh, very inconsistent portrayal of two odd couple friends who spiral out of control in completely opposite directions.
Two of Denmark’s most controversial businessmen, Spies and Gilstrup built an empire out of a modest travel agency by offering cheap flights and through somewhat-legal tax loopholes. Despite their obvious physical and behavioral differences, both men prove to be fascinating subjects. Spies undergoes the most transformation on the surface, growing a very prosperous beard and holing himself up in his mansion, spending his days by having great orgies for the tabloid photographers all to see. Gilstrup is perhaps just as insane, constantly driven to be free of taxes, going to the extent of creating a political party and running for office on the sole platform of no income tax for all businesses. If elected, he promises to disband most governmental agencies and abolishing the position of Prime Minister. As Spies sinks deeper into decadence, Gilstrup is arrested for tax evasion (go figure) and the pressures of both fully crumble their lifelong friendship.
As the two men grow apart it should feel like something monumental is happening, but Sex, Drugs & Taxation never can come close to this. It gives each character emotional moments, but the disintegration of their link falls flat. Since the big emotional moments during the film’s climax deal almost exclusively with Spies and Gilstrup’s partnership coming to its end, this is a big problem. It is altogether fine to have a film which can act as complete but separate portrayals of people in the same realm, this is something we see quite a bit these days (recent example that does it well: Rush). But when the shared personality isn’t nearly as interesting as the individual personalities, it’s hard to sell the big final moments as being about the shared personality.
This partly springs from the heavy feeling of a conventional biopic even despite the unconventional nature of these characters. The direction and performances too often feel like they were trying to get everything too historically right and with too much information crammed in. This is particularly seen in Pilou Asbæk’s performances as Spies. I’ve seen this actor in other films and have generally liked his performances (if you haven’t seen the prison thriller R, it’s worth your time). I don’t want to put too much blame directly on him, because Spies is the type of biopic subject so wickedly out there that he is hard to believe. Because of his appearance (including that quite prosperous beard), voice, and big, boisterous actions, Asbæk seems to be play-acting, rarely sinking into the role fully. Without knowing anything about these subjects or realizing that they are in fact real people, it still has the luster of a biopic in the worst ways.
Sex, Drugs & Taxation takes on a lot and isn’t totally without merit. There is a lot of technical business jargon throughout, dealing with tax laws and business acquisitions, but the film simplifies this to the best of its ability. It’s the more offbeat, smaller moments of the film, particularly with Spies at his sex compound, that work. The board rooms and various business-driven scenes that are so obviously a big part of these men’s stories are so less interesting. That’s not a surprise, though, given the very strange happenings with Spies at the height of his crazy glory. The film capitalizes on many of these adventures, clearly playing for a “did he just do that?” response. There is some entertaining exploitation going on, though the film can’t completely succeed.
Show times: Monday October 14 at 3:15 pm, Saturday October 19 at 1 pm, Monday October 21 at 8 pm
The Miracle, dir. Simon Staho, Denmark
When Jakob returns to his small Danish hometown following the death of his mother, he is forced to confront the past he ran away from and his first love. Johanna, now married to a kind but passionless priest, Erik, is obviously conflicted. In their shared past, Johanna was cruel to Jakob, breaking his heart, but now she clearly yearns for the love he once showed her. The first act of the film sets up their relationship nicely through flashbacks, succinctly showing the devastating past they shared. The Miracle explores these tortured souls coming together again and how that affects the lives around them.
Complicating matters, Johanna has been crippled from a car accident shortly after Jakob left. Bound to a wheelchair, her husband calls for a miracle from God to have her walk again, desperate to believe that she can be healed through his love. After Jakob returns and he quickly realizes their history, he is pushed toward the edge and begins to act irrationally toward his wife, putting more pressure on her to find the strength to walk again.
The Miracle is nicely shot, acted, and composed. Veteran Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen stars as Jakob, though Peter Plaugborg gives the film’s best performance as Erik. The role is emotionally demanding as the character creeps and then falls flatly into madness. Sonja Richter (known for Susanne Bier’s Dogma 95 film Open Hearts) gives Johanna a delicateness with her performance. Director Simon Staho uses many brief cut-ins of past and future events throughout the film, which heighten certain scenes.
Unfortunately, the film suffers a bit by being too dour. Even in the most romantic moments in the reconnection of Jakob and Johanna, the tone is deflating (save for one pivotal scene near the film’s center). There is no hope to grab on to — it is clear that the characters have no shot at happiness. Even when something positive happens, it ultimately pushes the characters further from happiness. This certainly isn’t a criticism unto itself, but because it is difficult to latch onto any of the characters, the film’s depressing tone ends up devouring it. Instead of feeling with these characters, rooting for them or suffering with them, I only found myself feeling sad for them. There is something to be said for films that take its viewer on an emotional rollercoaster — letting the highs and lows influence each other, giving us a fuller experience. By the end, everything spirals to a point that should be surprising and have more gravity, but because of the overall temperament, I’d already become disconnected.
Show times: Monday October 14 at 8:15 pm, Sunday October 20 at 11:45 am